November 26 (today) is World Sustainable Transport Day – a day that aims to recognize the importance of safe, affordable and accessible transport in terms of economic growth, environmental benefits, improving social welfare, and enhancing cross-border trade. A shift away from cars to a more sustainable transportation model is no longer a matter of simply saving time and being able to get from point A to B with less hassle for Pakistanis.
While less congested roads, pedestrian walkways that do not become de-facto parking spots, zebra crossings, and an abundance of transportation options would dramatically improve the experience of living and commuting in our urban centres, we have reached a point where these are the bonus points of sustainable transport. Moving away from private cars, bikes and rickety rickshaws and buses has quite literally become a matter of life and death for the country.
This becomes apparent when one looks at the blanket of smog currently draped around Lahore and several other cities in Punjab, forcing the caretaker provincial government to close schools on certain days, restrict the working hours of shops, restaurants and markets and advise people to wear masks. While it is not just the excess of vehicles on the roads causing Punjab’s smog woes, few would argue that it is not part of the problem.
Many of our cars, bikes and trucks are quite old and belch out smoke in a way that most modern vehicles do not. This has contributed to Lahore and Karachi becoming among the five most polluted cities in the world, as per the World Air Quality Index. An Air Quality Life Index report has also estimated that rising air pollution could cut lifespans by up to four years in Pakistan.
Sadly, old vehicles are what most of our cash-strapped and inflation-plagued population can afford. Cheap metros and buses and easily navigable bike paths and pedestrian walkways are the only way out of our transportation and pollution quandary. The UN estimates that living car-free can reduce one’s carbon footprint by 3.6 tons per year. And it is not just the environment, traffic, cleanliness and commuting times that stand to improve from sustainable transport. Imagine the savings on fuel we could realize without having to depend on cars all the time, the gains the retail trade could make if one could walk to and from shops with greater ease, and the additional investment we could attract if goods could be transported in a smoother and safer manner. This is an issue where environmental and economic concerns are not in conflict.
However, it is far harder to create order from disorder than doing the inverse. A cursory glance at our chaotic, unplanned urban sprawl can be enough to make one give up on any hope of functioning bus stops and metro stations. There is also the sheer lack of public transport options, one which our politicians have only belatedly begun to address and that too at a lackluster pace. Karachi, according to the World Bank, needs 15000 buses. Only a mere 1029 are operational as of now. Reports also say that the transit systems of our major cities are only running at half capacity overall. Hence, not only do we have a lack of existing public transport but what little we do have, people seem reluctant to use. This may be due to the old stigma attached to public transport as the reserve of the underprivileged or planning failures leading to the networks not catering to the needs of the people effectively enough. Whatever the case may be, our governments need to start both expanding public transport and encouraging the people to use it. Failure to do so may well lead to masks becoming our new national uniform, keeping us safe from a very different kind of health threat than the one they were intended for.
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